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Rich Kassel’s Blog

NY City Council to vote on diesel school bus bill today

Rich Kassel

Posted September 17, 2009 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, The Media and the Environment

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Every day, more than 7,000 large and small school buses take thousands of students to and from school. Unfortunately, their free trip to school usually includes a heavy dose of diesel soot pollution-pollution that has been shown to trigger asthma emergencies in dozens of studies from all around the world.

Much of this pollution leaks from the crankcase under the children into the cabin where they sit.

In 2001, my NRDC colleagues in California showed that students in California school buses were exposed to 4-6 times as much toxic soot pollution as passengers in adjacent cars, thanks to the open crankcase systems found on older buses.   (The same buses are used here in New York).

Since then, many public health and environmental professionals have replicated this research and found similar results.  Equally important, effective crankcase filters have entered the market place to solve the problem.

Later today, the City Council will vote on a bill that will require all of the City's school buses to be retrofit with crankcase filters to protect the children on the bus. It will also require all buses to be retired after sixteen years of service, effectively eliminating the oldest, dirtiest buses from our streets and replacing them with buses that meet the most stringent emissions standards in the world.

It's a smart step forward to help improve the health of our city's children.

This bill is the latest step in a series of groundbreaking laws and programs that have dramatically reduced diesel pollution in the City and around the country.

And, it's a step that reaches back directly to the summer of 1995.

That summer, NRDC's Dump Dirty Diesels Campaign successfully sued for the right to launch an ad campaign on the backs of NYC Transit buses that read, "Standing behind this bus could be more dangerous than standing in front of it."

The MTA story has been told many times before, but it bears repeating: Just as we had to take lead out of gasoline to enable the use of catalytic converters that would make cars dramatically cleaner, we had to take sulfur out of diesel fuel to enable the use of effective pollution-cutting technologies that would clean up our dirty diesel buses and trucks.

Back then, this was an untested approach. There was no such thing as a clean diesel bus, so most advocacy was directed to replacing diesels with clean, but extremely costly alternative fuels like natural gas.

Ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (the diesel equivalent of unleaded gasoline) did not exist in the commercial market yet, and nobody knew whether the new catalysts and filters would work effectively in the rough-and-tumble of 24/7 transit service in New York City.

But Governor Pataki and the MTA worked closely with NRDC to create the clean-fuel bus program that would test this approach (while also investing in natural gas in case the diesel components didn't work as planned).

The program worked - and it has become the model for clean fleets in the City, including this soon-to-be-passed school bus bill.

(An important aside: When the NYC Transit buses showed that the combination of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and effective soot filters would reduce particulate pollution by more than 90 percent in real-world transit service, it helped lay the technical foundation for EPA's regulatory program that now requires ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel for all trucks and buses, as well as requires soot filters on every new truck and bus engine built since 2007.)

Thanks to the MTA program, we know that a diesel-based approach can be clean without requiring an expensive shift in fuels and fueling infrastructure - a critical need in today's tough fiscal climate.  In fact, a M.J. Bradley study showed that diesel soot pollution from the NYC Transit fleet has been reduced by 97% since we ran those ads in the summer of 1995, thanks to replacing or retrofitting old diesel clunkers with new buses or engines that use the cleaner fuel and soot filters to cut their emissions.

But here's the problem: because diesel engines last for decades, polluted cities still need to take extra steps to accelerate the retirement and retrofitting of the dirty diesels that have years of active service left.

That's where today's City Council vote comes in.

Over the past eight years, the City Council and the Bloomberg administration have worked together to accelerate the extinction of the City's dirtiest diesels, and diesel clean-up has been a key component of PlaNYC 2030.  Laws passed in 2003 and 2005 require ultra-low sulfur diesel and "best available" retrofit technologies to be used in almost every diesel engine under the City's auspices, including construction equipment, many school buses, tour buses, sanitation trucks and other diesel vehicles. 

Unfortunately, those laws did not cover school buses that carry fewer than 10 children or the buses that carry children with special needs. And it didn't require the bus operators to close or filter their crankcases.

Intro. 622-A will close this loophole. It will add the extra protection of crankcase filtration for kids while they are on the bus to the public health protections of the 2003 and 2005 laws, and it will bring more of the newest, cleanest school buses to the City as soon as next year.

And that's good news for all of our kids.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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